Rolling thunder roused Master Zhao from his evening meditations. His eyes opened in time to notice 3 shooting stars streak across the inky sky. Within moments, the rain began. The signs were clear. His time had come. He drank deeply from the water pot and let out a deep sigh. He had spent years preparing his mind and his body for this moment. The trial of succession would decide who was to become the next sifu. If none passed, master Zhao would die and the centuries-old monastery would come to nothing.
The next morning, he gathered all the young monks to him and asked them to sit in a semi-circle in front of him. The great hall was perfumed with notes of sandalwood and camphor. After all had fallen silent, the master spoke. “I am an old man. My body is growing weak. In 3 days, I will be dead and our order will disband. Our only hope is that one of you completes the challenge of succession. In the courtyard, there are 3 pillars made of teak. Atop each is an enchanted cauldron. If one of you fetches a cauldron and brings it to me, I may yet live. To whomever can save my life, I will teach the most precious secrets of our order. This student will be our next sifu, and our order will survive for another generation.”
He paused to watch for the impact of his words. Some students gasped, some waited patiently, and others began to weep silently. Finally and after a long while, 3 students stood and placed their fists into their open palms. Master Zhao acknowledged them with a deep bow. “Everyone is to gather in the courtyard on the morning 3 days from now.” With that, he clapped his hands loudly. By rote the students rose, bowed to the master, and dispersed.
The three students that had stood up and accepted the challenged were Jian, Min, and Ling. Jian was as strong as a tiger, Min as nimble as an otter, and Ling as wise as a crane. Each student went about preparing for the challenge. Jian spent the days strengthening his body with arduous training and rich food, for it had been the strength of his arms and the courage of his heart which has brought him success. Min spent many hours observing the pillars and how they swayed in the breeze. He fashioned for himself metal spiked shoes and other tools to help him withstand the unpredictable conditions he was sure to face during his ascent. Ling instead spent much of his time talking with master Zhao. They took long walks during which Ling asked the master about the nature of his illness and of the enchanted cauldrons.
The Third Day
On the morning of the third day, the whole monastery gathered as Master Zhao had directed. Min seemed most eager and leapt onto the first pillar. He scaled it with impressive speed and agility. He had formed a loop of rope which he used to tug himself close to the slick, wooden surface. Though he slipped several times, his spiked shoes dug in and saved him from falling. Eventually, he reached the top and one of the cauldrons. To his shock and dismay, the already massive cauldron was filled with rainwater! Gingerly, he balanced atop the swaying pillar and poured out the water carefully. Once emptied, he tied a rope to its handle and lowered it safely to the ground. The nimble Min leapt from the pillar and with a flourish, landed in a tuck and roll. With triumph in his eyes, Min hefted the cauldron over to the master, but the master remained motionless. His glassy eyes revealed nothing.
Next, Jian stood forward and faced his pillar. He closed his eyes, firmly planted his feet, and struck the pillar with a terrifying blow! The sturdy teak shuddered and splintered. The pillar gave way, and the cauldron plummeted to earth. Just before it landed, the mighty Jian raised his calloused hands and snatched the now inverted cauldron just above his head. The water poured out, soaking him completely. He turned to Zhao and let out a cry of exultation; however, the master showed him the same indifference as before.
Zhao turned to Ling who walked to a nearby well. There he drew a bucket of water and brought it to the master. Slowly at first, then greedily Master Zhao drank the water. Min and Jian stared in confusion. Had Ling not heard the instructions? Did he forget that it was the cauldron that would save Master Zhao and their order? After many moments, the master spoke. “Meet again in the great hall tomorrow morning.”
The Next Sifu
As before, all the students met in the great hall and awaited their master. Zhao entered, his color and strength restored. He motioned for them all to sit. “Min, Jian, and Ling please step forward.” Zhao looked at each with a kind smile and spoke, “You have each done exceedingly well. Min, there are none here who can match your agility. You found ways to recover from failure quickly and use the perilous environment to your advantage. In the most complex situations, you will thrive. In this case however, you have failed.”
Turning to Jian he said, “Who can best your arm? Behind your fist is a river of strength and focus. You have trained your body and bent it to your will. A goal set before you will surely be yours.” At this Jian raised his hands in triumph and the students erupted in cheers. Gently the master calmed his students. “The goal you accomplished however was the wrong one.”
Zhao turned to Ling and nodded. Ling stepped forward, and spoke, “In our walks I asked Master Zhao about the enchanted cauldrons. What about them would save him? I learned that he had placed those cauldrons atop the pillars many years ago as preparation for this challenge. I then asked him what was the nature of his illness. He replied that he had had taken no water since the night of the great rain. It became clear to me he was dying of thirst and it was the rain collected in the cauldrons that he needed.” At this the students began to murmur. This time it was Ling who raised his hand to calm them. “The lesson is this: my skill was understanding the nature of a problem before decided my course of action.” He then turned to Jian and Min who had begun to look quite sheepish. “Do not be ashamed, brothers. We are each tools honed for a purpose.” Ling walked to them and extend his hand in a gesture of acceptance. All three of them clasped hands. “Though I will be sifu, it will take all three of us to lead this monastery.”